Sharon Schechter escaped the South Florida condominium tower collapse with just the nightclothes she was wearing, so she cried shortly after when the Global Empowerment Mission gave her an electric toothbrush, a phone charger and a $500 gift card to buy essentials.
Now GEM, other charities and businesses announced Wednesday that they will be paying the first and last months rent and security deposit at new apartments for Schechter and about 30 other individuals and families displaced by the June 24 tragedy in Surfside that killed 98.
GEM and its partners believe they will soon have the funds to pay the Champlain South survivors' rents for a year — that could run up to $50,000 each in South Florida's inflated real estate market.
“I literally walked out with nothing,” said Schechter, a Medicare insurance specialist who lived on the 11th floor. She spoke after a news conference announcing the program at GEM's headquarters, which more than two dozen survivors attended. “They gave me basic supplies you don't even think about ... You wake up the next day and you don't even have clothes.”
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GEM, a Florida-based charity that responds to disasters around the world, has raised $372,000 with its partners and distributed donated goods. It had already secured free temporary housing for the survivors and eventually gave each family $4,000 to help with expenses.
Founder and president Michael Capponi said an upcoming event should raise enough money to cover a year's rent. He said the group's goal is to help fill the “gap” between the short-term charitable and government help that arrives immediately after a disaster and long-term solutions such as insurance and legal settlements that can take a year or more to develop.
“This community is the world to me and we decided this is how we are going to give back,” said Capponi, a former real estate developer and Miami Beach nightclub promoter.
Rabbi Zalman Lipskar of the Shul of Bal Harbour, which has partnered with GEM, told the survivors that he learned long ago from a Holocaust survivor that they shouldn't try to comprehend a reason why they lived. He said that would mean there was a reason their friends and neighbors perished.
“What we do know is that we are here, we are alive,” Lipskar said. Many of the building's residents attended his synagogue.
For some survivors, the news conference was the first time they had seen each other since immediately following the collapse. They hugged and wept with each other.
Zulia Taub, an 82-year-old retired real estate agent, said she bought her fifth floor condo 22 years ago “when I could afford it.” Now, on a fixed income, getting housing assistance is essential so she can remain in the area with her friends and still do volunteer work at performing arts theaters.
“At my age, it is very difficult to get a new place,” Taub said. “I don't need a beautiful apartment like my home, but I want to stay close to my community.”
Schechter, after years running a food distribution program at schools and helping with hurricane relief, found it “very uncomfortable” to be on the receiving end of charity. But she said she appreciates it.
“It is my turn, but when the time comes I hope to give back again,” she said.